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The moment people find out about your new passion for photography, you will undoubtedly receive messages asking if you can shoot for free. The requests can range from photographing a children's birthday party to shooting a wedding or even commercial images for a business.

At the start of your photography venture, it can be tough to decline these kinds of requests. It is even more so if your portfolio isn't as extensive or varied as you would like it to be. It’s tougher yet if close friends and family ask for your photography skills for free.

Same as with paid photography work, you need to be strategic in utilizing portfolio shoots. Make sure they give you precisely what you need and help to kickstart your photography business with confidence.Your goal is to create a flourishing photography business. Unpaid portfolio shoots can both help and hinder progress if you aren’t careful.

Be Strategic In Your Approach

The difference between shooting for free and shooting for your portfolio is that the latter benefits everyone involved.

So, for example, you are looking to build a photography business. In that case, portfolio shoots at the start of your career can provide you with beneficial experience organizing a shoot from start to finish, including the delivery of the images.

Even though you may offer photography services for free, it doesn't mean your work ethic and professionalism have to slip.

Setting up a portfolio shoot provides an opportunity to build your reputation as a professional. Treat every portfolio shoot the same way you would if a client were paying for it.

Photographer taking picture of little girl.

Plan Your Shoots

The first thing you should do is brainstorm and list the essential shoots you want to do to get your photography business off the ground. For example, suppose you're confident that newborn and family photography is what you're most attracted to. In that case, there is little point in planning commercial, food, or other types of photoshoots that won't benefit your specific focus.

If you're still testing the waters and haven’t figured out your photography focus, compile a list of shoots that you want to try. This will help you figure out the direction of your photography. You only need one type of each shoot to give you some insight. For example, you could plan a mix of people, animals, and product-based photography sessions so you can experience a balanced variety.

Once you've done that, you can evaluate what types of photography appeal to you most and which ones you don't wish to pursue. If it doesn't feel right, trust your intuition. 

As with many things, it's difficult to convince yourself to work hard at something your heart isn’t into, so be honest with yourself. There are many different types of shoots and styles of photography, and with a bit of patience and dedication, you will find the genre and style that suits you.

Pro Tip

Don’t offer a portfolio shoot for an event that can not be recreated. Weddings, births, and special events are too important to learn on the job. No matter what they say beforehand, if you don’t get the shots they want, it can cause a lot of damage to your reputation. It is recommended to associate shoot or second shoot with a seasoned photographer so you can learn but not at the expense of a client’s special day. 

Set the Right Expectations

If you offer your photography services for free to gain experience and portfolio images, you need to be cautious that others don't take advantage of your efforts. Some businesses and people will jump at the chance of collaborating with you to receive images they can use.

To avoid investing more time and energy into a shoot than initially planned, it's essential to clearly outline what the photography session is for and what the other party will receive at the end.

Contracts instead of verbal agreements can help you avoid uncomfortable situations. It doesn't have to be a complex document, either. A straight-to-the-point agreement will suffice. Make sure it notes the most important details of the shoot, such as the name of your business, time, date, location, length of the shoot, what you will deliver, and what image use permission you give to the other party.

What does image use permission mean? This means that you allow the other party to use images in an agreed-upon manner, such as online-only or print. You will want to note that in the agreement. 

Here are a few different examples: 

  • If it's a business, such as a restaurant that agrees to prepare several dishes for you to shoot, they may want to use those photographs on its menu. 
  • If a family or an expecting mother volunteers to model, you could offer a gallery of images they can use online to share with friends and family. This is an additional opportunity for you to offer prints as an upsell. If you offer them a set number of images to pick for editing, you can upsell the rest of the gallery.
  • Each shoot will be unique, and there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach. These are just a few examples of what you can offer for potential portfolio shoots. However, everyone involved must be aware of the outcome of the shoot and how it will benefit them. Don't forget—that also includes you

Pro Tip

Do not give the client all of the images. Typically, the client receives 1-5 free digital images from the portfolio shoot for a complimentary shoot. This is usually the same amount you will use for your portfolio. If the client requests more images, explain that they can have them but it will be an additional fee. To avoid awkward conversations, outline it from the beginning in your contract. 

How to Approach People and Businesses

It is normal to lack confidence or to feel apprehensive about approaching other businesses or individuals to offer a portfolio shoot. Don't let this discourage you. You can do a handful of shoots at home, using what you have at your disposal. Examples could include your family members, friends, pets, or products. Those products could be jewelry or beauty items for still life shots, or cook up a few dishes and spend a day shooting them in your kitchen. Present your best work on an Instagram or Facebook account or create a simple portfolio on an online gallery or new website. 

You only need a few photos to start a conversation and introduce yourself. Your personality, professionalism, and enthusiasm will help you secure the shoot and build a relationship that may bring more opportunities in the future.

When you contact other businesses or individuals, consider sending a brief introduction about yourself and why you want to shoot with them. Last but not least, emphasize what they'll receive in return.

Who Should You Approach?

  • Partner up with local businesses! Think what type of business will have what you need for your portfolio—is it a kids boutique, music classes, restaurants, hospitality, retail?
  • Search for local bloggers that also compliment your photography focus and target audience. This could be those that talk about food, lifestyle, or fitness. They regularly need social media content, and you could get the opportunity to do a mix of portraits, lifestyle, and branding shots plus get a lot of shots for your portfolio. Be mindful of the volume of images you will need to provide. Remember, the norm is between 1-5 images and usually only the ones that you will be using for your portfolio. 
  • If you like event photography, see if any organizations, such as the art community, non-profit organizations, business centers, or community halls, plan events in your area. You can offer to shoot an upcoming event. This will help them gain images of their event to use and you’ll get images for your portfolio. Plus, you could potentially make new contacts by attending the event! Again be mindful of the volume of images you will be guaranteeing them. 
  • Ask friends and family if they would be willing to pose for you. It could be a family portrait, pet photos, or even a headshot or business image. 
  • Don't know many people in your area? You could hold a model call but be very clear about what participants will receive in return. Also, specify what type of model you are needing and whether they need to supply a wardrobe. Post the details on a local website and what they will get in return for the shoot. Be mindful of over posting as you don’t want to be known as the new, free photographer as you build your business! 
  • If you want to get into pet photography, consider shooting for a local pet shelter. Professional photos of pets waiting to be adopted can do wonders for them, and you will get to practice. 
Photographer taking pictures of food

Invest in yourself 

Building your portfolio is hard work on your own, but once you have found a niche that you love to photograph, look for others in that genre who offer classes and mentorship. Check out this resource guide here for some ideas. 

Don't Plan Too Many Shoots

It's an exciting time when you start working on your photography business. It can be tempting to plan as many shoots as possible, but be mindful of the time, effort, and perhaps the money you will spend on building your portfolio.

Once you have a few portfolio-building shoots behind you, it's time to start charging. You will not have all the answers at the beginning, but you can still build your business, learn, and meanwhile, make a profit. 

Pro Tip

Remember this - these are shoots FOR YOU! They are for you to build your portfolio. That is the main reason why you are doing these on your dime. They are not where the client can determine the location, the wardrobe, or the type. So that’s what you charge for.

Remember that building your portfolio through complementary shoots is temporary. Don’t do this for very long, or the expectation will be that you don’t charge for professional results. Instead, you are investing skills and time into each client. This effort is billable. Use portfolio shoots to give you the initial experience, confidence, and images to get clients that compensate you for your work fairly. Soon you’ll find that nothing compares to the boost you get when you land that first paid client!

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